What comes to your mind when you think of the city of Kolkata in India? The UNESCO-recognized festival of Durga Puja or the much-revered Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. Edens Garden or Salt Lake Football Stadium? Victoria Memorial or the only tram network in India? City of Literature or City of Arts? Rabindra Nath Tagore or Satyajit Ray? Maach bhaat (fish and rice) or Puchka (deep-fried balls filled with savoury and spiced water)?In fact, Kolkata -the ‘City of Joy’ or the ‘cultural capital of India’ is all of this and much more. The legacy of the city owes to its progressive past, and culturally-rooted luminaries who spearheaded it in the fields of art, science, music, and literature. An unfettered enthusiasm for politics, food, books, and festivals comes out naturally in the conversations with the locals. Unlike most of its modern counterparts, nostalgia is palpable in this city.
For the uninitiated, Kolkata is seldom listed as a city but an emotion. From being the capital of the British Empire in the pre-Independence era, the second most popular city after London to the capital of the vibrant Indian state of West Bengal, Kolkata has always made its presence felt with its culture-rich soul, progressive mindset, and endearing heart. Take a trip to discover its beguiling character and indulge in the appetizing Bengali delicacies.
3 or more days in Kolkata
The first visit to Kolkata can be overwhelming because there is lots to do in and around. But there is never a dull moment even if you wish to take it slow on the tram or simply walk around. It is best to begin your exploration from Esplanade-the central tram depot, and the Maidan area to see the iconic monuments like Victoria Memorial Hall, Indian Museum, Shahid Minar, and Tipu Sultan Mosque. At the Victoria Memorial Hall, its Indo-Saracenic revivalist style design defines its character, while at the Indian Museum, one gets to see the best collections of artifacts in Asia. The city is best explored on foot to soak in the sights along the walkways leading to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Birla Planetarium, Hoogly River waterfront, Babu Ghat, and the Prinsep Ghat. One must head to the Howrah Bridge, an engineering marvel spanning the Hooghly River. If you have time, Vidya Sagar Setu (bridge), Millennium Park, and Birla Mandir are worthwhile experiences too.
If you would like to indulge in the cultural precincts and fall in love with the gorgeous buildings in the narrow alleyways of old Kolkata, North Kolkata embraces you with open arms. There are many historic buildings in the B.B.D. Bagh neighbourhood. Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral house of Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore should be on the top of your list of places to dive deep into the culture of Kolkata. History buffs must find time to map the architectural canvas of the General Post Office, Writer’s Building, Treasury Office, Reserve Bank of India, Raj Bhavan, and Saint Andrew’s church.
In Kolkata, you must dedicate a few hours to visit Dakshineshwar Kali Badi and Belur Math. The temple dedicated to Goddess Kali is one of the most revered in India. To see the modern, and aspirational side of the city, one must spend a day in New Town. The Biswa Bangla Haat, Eco Park, and Science City are creative. On one of the days, you must catch up on a performance at Rabindra Sadan or Nazrul Manch. To know more about Mother Teresa, Mother House or Missionaries of Charity is the place to visit. Sports lovers must catch up a match at Edens Garden and Salt Lake Stadium. Shopping is imperative at New Market (also known as Hogg Market), Gariahat Market, Dakshinapan and Barabazaar (the big market).
The city is a foodie’s paradise
The city exudes love for food in every nook and cranny. No matter what your personal inclination is, you will be drawn toward the smorgasbord of different dishes available in Kolkata, especially Park Street.
Recently, Eater, an award-winning digital media brand featured Kolkata among the eleven best food destinations in the world for 2023. The indigenous roots, cultural polygamy, and immersive local connection are best represented in its street food as well as authentic Bengali delicacies.
In Kolkata, one cannot be without trying out street food. Puchka, Jhalmuri and telebhaja are unmissable. Locals love to recommend Mitra café for fish fry and cutlets, Chitto Da for-fish cutlets, Nizam for Mughlai food, Bedwin for kebabs, Kusum rolls for rolls, and India Restaurant for biryani. The diverse culinary landscape of the city is also home to these old and distinguished eateries like Aaheli, Mocambo, Peter Cat, Flury’s, Dada Bowdi, and 6 Ballygunge Place.
For authentic Chinese breakfast, head to Terita Bazar. Tangra. For more, the Republic of Noodles, an award-winning restaurant in Lemon Tree Hotel offers an eclectic South Asian spread. Zen is a high-end Pan-Asian restaurant located in ‘The Park’. Also, Chinoiserie is the much-loved and only Chinese outlet in the five-star zone in Calcutta in Taj Bengal with a Chinese Masterchef from Hongkong. Thai food lovers must visit Baan Thai in ‘The Oberoi Grand’.
Taj Bengal has the Zamindari Bengali Thali in Sonargaon, ITC Sonar has a delectable Bengali Thali at Eden Pavillion, Vivanta Kolkata has the Bangladeshi Thali in Mynt, and RaajKutir has the Bengali Anglo-Indian Thali. And if you are a vegetarian, you must pamper yourself with a multi-faceted royal platter at Royal Vega, ITC Royal Bengal.
Some of the Bengali delicacies that one must try are luchi alur-dom (puri and potatoes curry) kosha mangsho (slow-cooked mutton), shorshe bata maach (fish in mustard sauce), hilsa paturi (hilsa fish steamed in banana leaf), cholar dal (sweet lentils), shorshe posto (mustard-poppy seed curry), alur tarkari (Potato vegetable) chingri malai curry (prawn curry in coconut milk), bhetki paturi (marinated fish steamed in banana leaf) and biryani. No trip to Kolkata is complete without indulging in sweet treats like mishti doi (sweet yogurt) bhapa doi (steamed sweet yogurt), roshogullas (balls of cottage cheese dipped in sugar syrup), chom-chom, and Sandesh.
Durga Puja in an Intangible Cultural Heritage
Durga Puja circumscribes a thousand emotions for Bengalis all over the world. ‘Pujo Time’ or the 10-day festival is the most soulful and joyous time of the year in Kolkata. The celebration involves worshipping warrior Goddess Durga in her many forms. Elaborate stage decorations (pandals), grand Durga idols, sounds of the Dhak (traditional drum), community bhog (food), rituals, events, carnivals, shopping, and gastronomical delights only capture the whiff of its grandeur. The experience that is created in the last five days of the festival is out of this world. The magnanimity and beauty of this festive fervour are such that Durga Puja recently got inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Look out for 20-24 October, this year.
In the age of social media, travelling is a lot about capturing great pictures. Kolkata is an Instagrammable city with many moods and colours. From the vibrant black and yellow taxis running on the road, full-of-life streets, legendary monuments, and bewitching food, the shutterbugs cannot keep calm. Do not miss quintessential sunset hues at the Prinsep Ghat, China Town for the vibrant shops, Kumortuli for the 300-year-old settlement of traditional potters, Mallik Ghat for Kolkata’s famous flower markets, and College Street to capture the world of books. Street art lovers will love the graffiti and murals on public walls. Look for some 3D art around the areas namely golf green, mominpur, sadar street. And you may also like to visit Taj City Centre New Town for its impressive art gallery, and ITC Sonar for the replicas of the Pala Dynasty-inspired sculptures.
Places to Stay
The iconic Taj Bengal, ITC Royal Bengal- a luxury collection hotel, The Oberoi Grand, JW Marriott, Hyatt Regency, ITC Sonar, and Taj City Centre capture the historical heritage and grandeur of Kolkata in their unique and opulent ways. The Park, Vivanta Kolkata, Fairfield by Marriott, RaajKutir IHCL Seleqtions, Lemon Tree Premier, Howard Johnson by Wyndham Kolkata are some of the other reliable choices for both family and business trips.
P.S. An edited version of the article was published in Batik Air’s inflight magazine this year.